Opinion, Promising Practices, School Community, Teaching

Has teacher professionalism been over-shadowed by unionism?

Many teachers are trapped in the no-man’s land between unionism and professionalism

Once upon a time, when knights were bold, there were three professions: divinity, medicine and law. Now there are hundreds, possessing intellectual rigour ranging from high to low. They all boast professional accreditation and/or certification: engineers, hair dressers, realtors, opticians, brewers, surveyors, librarians, photographers, road builders, early childhood educators, teachers, etc., etc. They display framed diplomas and certificates and spend riotous hours at annual conventions. In this proliferation, the meaning of professionalism has too often been debased to mere technical know-how.  

Historically, professionalism stood for intellectual independence derived from university and private study and buttressed by exemplary moral character. As things stand now, some elite professional people are very richly rewarded and some are not. It is the rarity of some professional fields that mainly accounts for high income. Sixty years ago, Dr. Alan Klass wrote a paper under the title  What is a Profession?  In explaining the concept of “going the extra mile” (beyond the terms of the contract), Klass wrote: “It is in this subtle area of private endeavour that a profession, in its totality, achieves greatness”.

Teachers in the public system, generally speaking, display some of the hallmarks of a modern profession – explicit academic standards, certification requirements , rules of membership,  a code of ethics with a mechanism for enforcement and, not least,  work contracts bargained under provincial labour codes. But a devilish fuzziness hangs over these hallmarks.  Has professionalism been over-shadowed by unionism?  Is it mere quibbling to ask? Does it matter one way or another to students in school and their parents?

Well, yes, it does make a difference. Witness the pell mell explosion of private schools, (private school enrolment in Canada, 1960 to 2005, grew by 357% compared with public school enrolment by 52.5%), a phenomenon partly explained by unionism in the schools. Witness the large number of persons, some now middle-aged, whose lives were messed up by a school strike. Before proceeding further, let’s be clear on one point. Teacher associations operating as unions under local labour law serve to ensure fair play, equal treatment in work assignments, promotions and pay scales. These assurances and protections contribute to good morale on the job and, therefore, to  a friendly learning atmosphere in the classroom.

But there is a catch. Many teachers, trapped in the no-man’s land between unionism and professionalism, are inhibited from offering  leadership in education innovation and transformation. The need for such initiatives is greater as the digital revolution envelops us.  Additionally, teachers are inhibited by the all-powerful ministries of education. For example, there is almost no hope for a teacher or a group of teachers who believe they can do a better job of educating their students without the “benefit” of government standardized testing.  Premier Dalton McGuinty of Ontario has treated government test results as a political talisman through the recent election campaign.

The sovereign power of the Minister goes back a long way — to the very earliest days of public education. I remember the struggle to get Ministry approval in 1961 for a pilot project in teaching history (Grades 11 and 12) without using THE textbook. The results of that project were overwhelmingly positive but fifty years later history textbooks are still with us, as with most other subjects.   In the early 1970s, I listened to David Clee, head of the Curriculum and Textbooks Branch of the Ontario Department of Education announce in a speech before the Ontario Education Association that Circular 14 (the listing of approved textbooks) would be phased out within a year.  David Clee was phased out instead.

New life and spirit have indeed been injected into public education in some jurisdictions,- Alberta and Quebec come to mind. And there are pockets of excellence everywhere. But the termites are deep into the woodwork everywhere, the termites in question being the stand pat effect of centralization and standardization with their deadening effect on professionalism. In an upcoming blog, I will argue the need for a major enquiry into Ontario education, one that might be a signal light for other jurisdictions.

Meet the Expert(s)

Peter H. Hennessy

Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.

Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.

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